It's not often an automaker tells a federal safety agency "no," at least not without some resulting consequence. But Chrysler Group evidently feels a little gutsy: This week it rejected the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's request for a recall of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and '02-07 Jeep Liberties. And so what would have been just another auto recall in the growing heap of them (see our 2012 feature Why Product Recalls Make You Less Safe) has become something much more interesting.
NHTSA wants this recall because of the placement of these Jeeps' gas tanks. The agency says the fuel tanks are placed behind the rear axle, which makes them vulnerable to leaking and catching fire in rear-end collisions. Since 2011, Clarence Ditlow and the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group, has called the Chrysler vehicles modern-day Pintos, a reference to the infamous Ford Pinto recall controversy in 1977. He in reaction Chrysler's recent refusal.
This complaint is not a new one: Chrysler has been working with NHTSA on the issue since September 2010, according to an official Chrysler statement. However, the automaker says NHTSA's conclusions are based on "incomplete analysis of the underlying data" and cites incomplete data sets, unrepresentative comparisons, and previous safety tests in defense of its position to refuse the recall. In reaction to Chrysler's refusal, NHTSA released a statement maintaining that its data show "these vehicles may contain a defect that presents an unreasonable risk to safety," and urging Chrysler to reconsider its position.
So can a carmaker simply refuse the government's request? The action by Chrysler execs is rare but has precedent. In 1996, the Chrysler Corporation, then free of its Daimler or Fiat affiliation, faced a recall of 91,000 seat belt systems, but rejected the request and two years later. They may soon find themselves in a similar situation.
What exactly happens when you just say "no" to a recall request? It's a little more complicated than a "thanks, but no thanks" refusal. If Chrysler holds steadfast to its position until June 18, the NHTSA can hold a public hearing to address the issue. If the matter remains unresolved, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland must decide whether to force the automaker to comply with the request. Chrysler could challenge his decision if he rules against it in federal court, but at the cost of the continued bloodletting of bad PR, much like what happened to Toyota after a litany of recalls in 2010. We'll have to see if this gamble pays off.